Over the last few days, in the flurry of excited talk about the killing of Osama bin Laden, I've heard at least five slips of the tongue in which the name "Osama" was substituted for "Obama"—including slips by a news anchor, a White House correspondent, my mother-in-law and myself. Does each one of us harbor secret racist attitudes towards Barack Obama, perhaps unconsciously equating him with dangerous Islamic terrorists?


If you ask most people what gives rise to speech errors in which one word is swapped for another, they're likely to give you an explanation that goes back to Freud's ideas on the topic: that slips of the tongue reflect a layer of unconscious thoughts and attitudes that sometimes slip past the mental guards of our consciousness and bubble to the surface. That they're the window to what someone was really thinking.

But decades of research in the psychology of language reveal that speech errors are rarely this incriminating. The vast majority of them come about simply because of the sheer mechanical complexity of the act of speaking. They're less like Rorschach blot tests and more like mundane assembly-line mistakes that didn't get caught by your mind's inner quality control.

With the help of an analogy, here's a brief tour of what goes on in your mind's language production factory as you prepare to speak:

Imagine we're in a toy factory and each sentence is like a custom-designed boxed toy set, let's say a toy barnyard scene. A general sketch for the sentence gets drawn up by the design team, and then this gets passed on to workers whose job it is to identify the specific toys that go into the boxed set. Think of these toys (a farmer doll, say, and toy pigs, horses and cows) as corresponding to the words in the sentence. Once the objects are identified, they still need to be built, so the word-choosers then pass on instructions to workers down the line who will assemble each doll, horse, pig, etc. out of a bunch of small parts (think of these small parts as the sounds that make up a word).

The whole process takes place under incredible time pressure, and can get extremely chaotic. Any one of a number of things can go wrong. For example, the word-chooser might forget that he's already sent along instructions for a specific word, and request that word twice by mistake. Or in the heat of the moment, one word might get chosen instead of another simply because the two look a lot alike. Or the word-builders might put the wrong pieces together. This often happens with speech errors that are called "spoonerisms", where two sounds get exchanged—leading to odd results like saying "queer old dean" instead of "dear old queen." On our toy assembly line, it's a bit like having the head of a horse end up on the body of a cow.

Once you have a sense of the complex and frenzied system of language production, it's easy to see how the "Obama/Osama" error could easily occur perfectly innocently. The sheer similarity between the two words could cause the word-choosers to pass on the wrong word. And in the context of the recent news events, in which both Barack Obama and Osama bin Laden figured prominently in the news stories, this would be even more likely, as the word-choosers would often be handling design plans that called for sentences involving both of these words. Even if the right word was sent down, there'd still be the possibility of substituting the wrong sound in the word "Obama" by sticking in an "s" where a "b" should have been—made all the more likely by the fact that the word builders would also be busy assembling the word "Osama", so the parts for this word would already be on hand, making it more likely that they could end up in the wrong name. Finally, the quality control team would be less likely to notice the mistake because it would be expecting to see both "Obama" and "Osama" coming down the assembly line.

And of course, the more tired, excited, distracted or time-pressed the speaker, the greater the likelihood of a mess-up at any stage of this process.

Lack of knowledge about the complicated process of language production can easily lead people to jump to false conclusions about the underlying causes of so-called "Freudian slips." For example, in 2007, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was taken to task for confusing the names "Obama" and "Osama" and accused of deliberate political fear-mongering. And in 2006, radio broadcaster Dave Lenihan lost his job over inadvertently uttering a racial slur while discussing the prospect of Condoleezza Rice as commissioner for the national Football League. Here's what Lenihan said:

"She's got the patent resumé of somebody that has serious skill. She loves football, she's African-American, which would be kind of a big coon. A big coon. Oh my God - I totally, totally, totally, totally am sorry for that. I didn't mean that."

Lenihan later claimed that he was aiming to say "coup" and mis-pronounced the word, an explanation that would strike a language scientist as wildly plausible. The goof may well have been a blend of the parts of the words "coup" and "boon", either of which would have been reasonable words in context, and whose sound similarity would have increased the probability of the blend.

No matter. Enough listeners expressed outrage at what they saw as Lenihan's thinly-veiled racist attitudes and he got the boot.

Broadcasters need standards, and there's no doubt that the "Obama bin Laden" trick has occasionally been used with deliberate intent to associate the President with Public Enemy #1. But one would hope to avoid groundless linguistic witch hunts. Those who let slip their Osama/Obama gaffes on the air can only hope that their network bosses will have taken a psychology of language course at some point in their lives.

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Copyright © 2011 Julie Sedivy, All Rights Reserved

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